Women on Comedy Panels shows ruffling hair and feathers.

I loved “The Bridge” on BBC4. All that bleached out Scandinavian sky and picturesque dying, those guttural vowels. I loved the main Policewoman character Saga Noren too. With her social awkwardness and need to read relationship books to work out how to have emotions she reminded me of me ten years ago (and now, sometimes). There are lots of women in Scandi dramas. All sorts of ages, shapes, attractiveness levels. In “The Bridge” as well as Saga, one ran a research lab, one headed up a chemical company, another was a senior Police officer, all without anyone ever saying anything like “Wow, you’re a woman, doing this job must be ever so hard for you, what with everybody else being men”. It was just part of life, uncommented on.  When “The Bridge” finished, the BBC must have visited the special shop for moody, subtitled dramas and come up with a Belgian one called “Salamander”. I was perfectly well-disposed to like it. I know people say Belgium’s boring but they seem to have a lot of cake there and sprouts aren’t their fault. However, about half an hour in, I was getting annoyed. Salamander was a moody detective, with curlier hair and a crisper shirt than would be normal for a British maverick Policeman, but there appeared to be no women allowed to do anything at all, unless it related to men. There was a drippy bank secretary, Salamander’s wife who was basically only shown ruffling his curly hair, and Salamander’s daughter. There were no women in the Police or the bank or among the robbers or the government. I began to get annoyed. I began to think that Belgium seems to be stuck in the seventies and, once again, Denmark and Sweden have earned my vote in the Eurovision Song Contest without having to field their deafest, most Jay-Zee influenced goat herder. I wondered if, in my newfound gender-balance militancy, I was the only person who thought this. But no- Twitter was full of people saying the same thing (I do acknowledge that people who Tweet about a BBC4 Saturday night subtitled crime drama are still quite a self-selecting group). Salamander’s depiction of a world in which women are passive and incidental made Belgium look bad. So- when BBC1 controller Danny Cohen announces that comedy panel shows will now have at least one woman on, I am mostly pleased. But it is nowhere near revolutionary enough. I don’t want to see yet another panel show (“Have I Got News For You” is particularly bad for this) in which a woman is only shown laughing and practically ruffling Paul Merton’s curly hair. I want women shown to be joining in on an equal basis, I want two women or three, I want women on panel shows to the extent that nobody ever again thinks about women on panel shows as an issue. I’ve been on a couple of live comedy panels at The Stand. One was a sort of living hell in which I was told we’d “Just banter and riff and that” and I found myself attempting to “Banter” with some male comics younger than my tights, who in order to make their uniformly laddish personas work needed to cast me as the “Posh bird off Radio 4”. If you’ve ever heard me talk, this doesn’t work very well as I’m only on Radio 4 to make up their “Northern, slightly common bird” quota. In contrast, I was on John Scott’s “Sod the Tories” panel, also at the Stand in Newcastle. It involves a mixture of pre-written material and chat. We comics were a mixture of styles- from ranting, to Geeky to laddish to- whatever I am. We all get the chance to be exactly who we are without fighting to interrupt. John said he does struggle to find lots of female comics- but that he’d like to have at least two on some future shows so its less of a thing. So, I’m glad it’s going to change, but, as I’m sure Salamander the curly detective would agree- it’s not how many women you have, it’s what you do with them.

Published as a Journal newspaper column, 14/2/14

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